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American Rescue Plan Act
Cheshire County delegation gives green light to spending plan from federal rescue money

The Cheshire County Delegation has approved more than $7 million in expenditures to be funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, including money to bring all county employees up to at least a $15-per-hour wage.

On Aug. 9, the county’s state representatives approved spending that will be used to aid municipalities, businesses and nonprofits, as well as county operations. The delegation has OK’d spending for about half of the county’s total ARPA allotment, allocating $7.2 million out of nearly $14.8 million, according to a news release the county issued late last week.

The money will be used to support the county’s $60.8 million budget for 2021, which the county delegation approved in April.

“The American Rescue Plan Act has made it possible for Cheshire County to deliver timely relief to its residents without incurring an additional tax burden,” said N.H. Rep. Dan Eaton, D-Stoddard, chairman of the county delegation, in the release. “As approved, this budget keeps county taxes unchanged from 2020.”

The American Rescue Plan Act was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March. The money is being distributed to communities across the country to help in the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to $750,000 allocated for raises for county employees, other planned expenditures include $2.3 million for energy upgrades to county properties, and $1 million each for the Maplewood Nursing Home reconstruction project and emergency grants for businesses and nonprofits. Another million dollars is set to be distributed among Cheshire County towns and the city of Keene, and $6,500 is being used for a summer concert series welcoming people back to the county’s public spaces.

Since the ARPA money is a one-time payment — in two disbursements — the release says county officials realize additional investments will need to be made moving forward, specifically regarding county wages. But County Administrator Chris Coates said bringing all employees up to a minimum of $15 per hour has been in the works for several years, as a way to make the county more competitive with other local employers, and the county already has some potential sources for that money in the future.

“One of the things that we’ve been doing for the past four or five years is looking at other ways we can generate more revenue and not rely solely on the tax base to offset our budget increases,” Coates said. “We’ve had success in that.”

Coates explained that several programs have provided the county with additional revenue streams in recent years. The county jail in Keene has taken on more federal inmates, which Coates said brings in at least $1.8 million annually.

He said the county has also been able to expand its System of Care program, a Medicaid-funded program that helps students who are at risk of requiring out-of-district placement, which has brought in an added $400,000 to $500,000 yearly. And in the past few years, he added, the county has seen an increase in the Medicaid payments it receives through Maplewood.

The county typically has between 465 and 475 employees, but currently has a staff of 432, in positions ranging from administrative work and law enforcement to health care.

Before the delegation approved the raises, which are expected to go into effect in mid-September, roughly 60 county employees were making less than $15 an hour, with the lowest wage being $12.50, Coates said. But he said county officials knew that they couldn’t stop at just bringing people up to a minimum of $15 an hour, and said that employees already earning that much or more should get raises as well.

He explained that the ARPA money will be phased into the budget over the next four years, in amounts that decrease each year until the expense of the raises has been fully absorbed into the county’s regular budget.

The largest chunk of Cheshire County’s ARPA funds will be spent on energy upgrades at the county’s three campuses — the county hall facility in downtown Keene, the county jail on Route 101 in Keene, and the Maplewood Nursing Home in Westmoreland. Coates said these will include a broad range of improvements, such as new LED lighting, automated heating and cooling controls and updating HVAC units.

One million dollars allocated from the county’s ARPA money to its towns and to Keene will be used to help with any municipal projects or unanticipated costs related to the pandemic.

Keene City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said she believes Keene’s portion is about $248,000, leaving just over three quarters of the money to be split between the 22 towns in the county. However, Dragon said Keene officials have not yet discussed how that money will be put to use.

Another million will be used to award grants to businesses and nonprofits that have been impacted by the pandemic. Coates said these grants and the money to municipalities will be one-time awards that end when the $1 million runs out, but that they could be funded again if the county receives more assistance in the future.

Maplewood Nursing Home will receive $1 million to help with costs associated with its recent renovation project, which Coates said is largely completed. But the project ran roughly two months behind schedule due to delays from pandemic-related restrictions, such as needing to keep workers away from residents, he said.

“At the end of the day, had COVID not been there, there would have been no issues whatsoever,” Coates said of the project timeline.

Meanwhile, the concert series being funded by the ARPA money has already launched, with two performances so far in August, one at the county building in downtown Keene and the other at Railroad Square. Coates said additional concerts are scheduled around the county, including in Jaffrey, Swanzey, Walpole and Winchester.

He commended the work of the county’s delegation and commissioners who he said took a very community-oriented approach to divvying up the money and supported the recommendations of staff.

“I think that they should be recognized for their foresight and thoughtful and pragmatic thinking on this,” Coates said.

Hannah Schroeder / Sentinel Staff

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., listens to Keene Mayor George Hansel as he talks about the importance of workforce training during a meeting Tuesday between the senator and officials with the city, Keene Housing and ReVision Energy. During the meeting at the Forest View Apartments in Keene, attendees discussed the infrastructure package that passed the U.S. Senate this month and the future of housing and energy in the area.

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Take two:
Take two: Hinsdale School Board approves revised reopening plan
  • Updated

HINSDALE — Just shy of a week before students return to class, the Hinsdale School Board on Tuesday approved a reopening plan, including an indoor mask mandate to start and physical-distancing requirements.

The board unanimously adopted the 20-page document after about 90 minutes of discussion with district administrators. The board made only minor adjustments to the revised plan the district posted on its website Monday, ahead of the first day of school Aug. 31. The most substantive change involved making the district’s minimum of three feet of distance between all students and staff “required,” rather than “encouraged” whenever possible.

“I think the way it’s worded, ‘encouraged to maintain 3 feet whenever possible’ is a little too wishy-washy,” board member Holly Kennedy said of the draft plan, before the board approved her change to make distancing mandatory. “… I would like to see some kind of language that would be stronger than ‘encouraged,’ ... just so it’s the norm, rather than ‘Let’s try to do it.’ ”

The board met last Wednesday, but declined to adopt a reopening plan after members expressed concern that the document lacked detail. The district released a three-page draft reopening plan July 28, and the majority of comments at last week’s meeting centered on the district’s mask mandate and the lack of protocols to transition to remote learning if coronavirus cases surge even more.

After last week’s meeting, Superintendent Wayne Woolridge said district administrators met several times and incorporated feedback from the board into the more detailed reopening plan. The updated document includes appendices outlining plans for athletics and the metrics school leaders will use to determine when masks are required, and when schools should switch to remote instruction, if a surge in COVID-19 cases affects operations.

At Tuesday evening’s meeting, which drew no members of the public to the in-person meeting at the district office but did have about 25 viewers on Zoom, board members said they appreciated the administration’s updated plan.

“I want to say thank you, by the way, to everyone for really, on such short notice, coming back with all the detail that I personally think we all had trouble missing last week,” board member Julia Kilelee said. “So this has just been a huge help.”

Board members also said they were satisfied with the district’s intention for teachers to develop “pivot plans” in case schools need to pause in-person learning due to COVID-19.

“Teachers are deciding, ‘How is this going to work for me, how’s it going to work for my students, and how will I communicate it now to parents so they know, too,’” Hinsdale Middle/High School Principal Ann Freitag said of the pivot plans, which she said will be in place by the end of the week.

The Hinsdale district intends to have students attend in-person classes five days a week, with no remote learning option available, as there was last year. As part of the reopening plan, though, the district adopted a decision-making matrix based on state health department guidance to determine when a shift to remote learning might be necessary.

According to the plan, the superintendent, in consultation with the school board and state and local health officials, can order a shift to remote learning if the community is experiencing substantial COVID-19 spread, and the pandemic’s impact on schools, such as a strain on staffing or a cluster of cases, is high.

The board also adopted the state’s decision-making matrix for masks, which calls for universal masking in schools whenever a county has substantial COVID-19 transmission. As of Tuesday, Cheshire County is experiencing substantial transmission, the highest of the state’s three tiers measuring community spread, according to the state health department. The Hinsdale board will re-evaluate the mask matrix on a monthly basis, according to the plan.

Ultimately, after minimal public comments, the board approved the reopening plan 4-0.

Kaylah Hemlow, who formerly served as the vice chair of the five-member board, recently resigned to take a teaching position with the district, Chairman Sean Leary said. The board is currently accepting letters of interest for the open seat, and expects to select an interim member at its September meeting.Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.

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FAQs: The when, where and why of the COVID-19 booster shot
  • Updated

In recent weeks, federal health officials have authorized a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine for those who are immunocompromised, aimed at boosting people’s immune response to the virus, as cases continue to surge due to the highly contagious delta variant.

Here’s a rundown of who can receive a booster shot, what’s in it and where, locally, to get it:

Who can now get a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine?

On Aug. 12, the Food and Drug Administration amended the emergency-use authorizations for the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to allow some people with compromised immune systems to get a third shot, as long as their initial doses were by Moderna or Pfizer.

Those who qualify include people receiving active cancer treatment for tumors or cancers of the blood; people with advanced or untreated HIV; and those who are taking immunosuppressant drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC recommends the additional dose be administered at least four weeks after the person’s second dose of Pfizer or Moderna.

Why do people who are immunocompromised need a third dose?

People who are moderately to severely immunocompromised are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because they are more at risk of developing a serious, prolonged illness, the CDC says.

Dr. Aalok Khole, an infectious disease expert at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, added that while the vaccines continue to be successful in preventing serious illness and hospitalizations, some people who are moderately to severely immunocompromised might not develop a strong enough response despite the two doses, leaving them vulnerable. But an additional dose might boost their antibody titers, granting them added protection.

If I’m immunocompromised and got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, can I get another dose?

You will likely need another dose, but it’s not available at this time, according to the CDC. The Johnson & Johnson shot is a viral vector vaccine, while the Pfizer and Moderna shots are mRNA-based, and it’s currently unknown if it’s safe to combine the two varieties. However, the CDC says that more data are expected in coming weeks.

Is the third dose the same vaccine formula we already received or does it differ? Will the doses that people who are immunocompromised receive differ than what others may get in the future?

The third dose for immunocompromised people is the same Moderna or Pfizer vaccine that people already received, according to Khole.

Other populations — if approved for a third dose — will also likely receive the same vaccines, Khole said, though he noted that in the future the boosters might be tweaked to better protect against COVID-19 variants, such as delta.

Where can an immunocompromised person get a third dose?

There are more than 500 locations across New Hampshire where people can get a third dose, including pharmacies and hospitals, according to Laura Montenegro, spokeswoman for the state health department.

Locally, Cheshire Medical patients can either speak to their primary-care or specialty provider or leave a message at 354-6943 to receive a call back for an appointment, spokeswoman Heather Atwell said.

Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough is still working on its plans to distribute the third dose, according to Chief Medical Officer Dr. Daniel Perli. Once that is determined, he said the hospital will reach out to patients to share those details.

In the meantime, Perli said patients interested in a booster should contact another health care provider, such as a local pharmacy.

The CDC recommends people consult their health care provider on whether a third shot is needed. However, patients who plan to get their booster dose at a pharmacy can self-attest that they are immunocompromised, Montenegro said.

As with the initial shots, appointments for a third can be made at vaccines.nh.gov, by calling the state’s hotline at 2-1-1 or by directly contacting your primary-care provider or pharmacy.

When will the third dose be available locally?

New Hampshire health care providers began administering the boosters upon the FDA’s authorization on Aug. 12, according to Montenegro.

When can other people get a third dose? Will everyone need one?

Federal health officials announced last week that people nationwide can start receiving a booster shot Sept. 20, assuming the FDA and CDC sign off on the doses’ safety and effectiveness by that point.

People would be eligible for the third dose starting eight months after they received their second one.

Khole added that even though the latest data from the CDC show the vaccine’s protection starting to wane after about six months, it is still effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths.

But even if the country has third doses to give to everyone, it doesn’t necessarily mean it should, according to Khole.

“The vaccines are doing what they’re supposed to do, so balancing that against, sure, we have the vaccine so let’s give everyone a third dose, but then there’s vaccine equity, where other countries in the world don’t even have enough to give their population full doses,” he said. “ ... Do we be proactive to the extent that we may be adding protection that may not be needed for everyone? ... It’s a complex decision.”

Questions about the COVID-19 vaccines or anything else related to the viral disease can be answered at vaccines.nh.gov or by calling the state’s hotline at 2-1-1.

This article has been changed to accurately reflect a point by Dr. Aalok Khole.

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Peterborough asking insurer to cover $2.3M lost in scam, official says
  • Updated

PETERBOROUGH — Town officials hope to recoup from insurance $2.3 million stolen from public coffers in a cyber scam this summer before considering other ways to raise those funds, according to Town Administrator Nicole MacStay.

Peterborough, which has a $15.8 million budget this year, doesn’t know yet whether the Concord insurance agency NH Primex will cover the lost money, she said Tuesday, a day after officials announced that the town had been defrauded by scammers posing as ConVal Regional School District staff, in addition to another scam.

MacStay declined to speculate whether taxpayers will have to make up the stolen funds, saying only that Peterborough is “focusing our attention on recovering those losses through insurance right now.”

“If we do find that we’re not able to, we’ll start exploring the other options that’ll be available to the town,” she said.

Town officials learned of the scam after a $1.2 million transfer meant for ConVal didn’t reach the district in July and payouts to a contractor on the Main Street bridge project also weren’t received, MacStay and selectboard Chairman Tyler Ward said Monday.

In a news release, they said they don’t believe those funds — which they said the U.S. Secret Service has determined were subsequently exchanged for cryptocurrency — can be recovered by reversing the transactions.

Peterborough has since paid Beck & Bellucci, the Franklin construction firm replacing the bridge, what it was owed, but remains a payment behind on its monthly obligation to ConVal, according to MacStay. The school district has been "very understanding," she said, and is working with Peterborough to ensure that any payment doesn't hamstring the town's finances.

Those delays aren’t expected to affect the school district, which has cash reserves to make up a short-term deficit, or the bridge project, which has been slowed by flooding from the Contoocook River due to heavy rains this summer, MacStay said Tuesday.

The scammers duped town finance staff by telling them via email that ConVal had changed banks and providing wire-transfer information for the fraudulent account, she said. 

After learning that ConVal hadn’t received its monthly payment from Peterborough on July 26, three days after finance staff sent those funds, she said the town tried unsuccessfully to stop the transfer before notifying NH Primex of the incident.

Officials looked at all of Peterborough’s recent money transfers to see if any others had included a change in banking information, but ConVal’s was the only one it found, according to MacStay. The town didn’t put in place a more vigorous review process for subsequent financial transfers because it didn’t know then how the scam had happened, she said.

“We were unclear at that point whether or not the fraud had happened on our end or if it was on ConVal’s end or if it was somehow being intercepted between the two organizations,” she said.

ConVal Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders has said the district’s IT staff reviewed its email servers and anti-virus logs and found no signs of malicious activity.

Peterborough learned last week — while the Secret Service’s Cyber Fraud Task Force was still investigating the first theft — that two payments to Beck & Bellucci hadn’t arrived. The construction firm referred an inquiry Tuesday about the payment delay to Peterborough officials.

MacStay said Tuesday she doesn’t know how long the town, which has halted all ACH (Automated Clearing House) transfers and is issuing those payments via physical checks instead, will extend the pause. Peterborough staff are paid through a separate direct-deposit system unaffected by that change, she said.

Town policies for handling electronic money transfers are also under review by the Secret Service, which MacStay said told her that another northern New England community recently lost $600,000 in a similar scam.

Transfers like those meant for ConVal and Beck & Bellucci are reviewed by multiple people in Peterborough’s finance office, she said, adding that there are “checks and balances in our system that these criminals were able to … insert themselves into.”

While no town employees are believed to be criminally involved in the scam, MacStay and Ward said Monday, those who were directly targeted in the email fraud have been placed on leave pending the conclusion of the Secret Service investigation. MacStay said Tuesday that their absences won’t affect the finance department’s day-to-day operations. She said that the town has “redundancy” in that office, though she declined to specify how many people are on leave.

Declining also to share more on Peterborough’s financial protocols, she voiced concern about offering a cybersecurity “handbook for other criminals to take and use against other small towns.

“This is happening all over the place, so my real concern is to prevent any knowledge gained from our experience here being used against someone somewhere else,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., called the $2.3 million scam “devastating” in a Tweet, adding that “what happened here isn’t a rarity.”

Hassan’s office said in a news release Tuesday that the incident “further underscores the need for additional investments in state and local cybersecurity.”

Hassan, who visited a Keene Housing property Tuesday while touting the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Senate earlier this month, has proposed a cybersecurity grant program for state and local governments that was included in that legislation, according to the release. The $1 billion program would give at least 80 percent of those funds to municipalities, including 25 percent to rural communities, and require states to submit a cybersecurity plan to federal officials.

Peterborough officials would likely apply for funding through that program, if enacted, MacStay said Tuesday.

“That is what we’re discussing at this time.”